Finding children’s or young adult literature with a strong heroine is not an easy task. Even some of the absolute best children’s literature falls short. My all-time favorite book series, Harry Potter, has an incredibly strong female character in Hermione Granger, and she embodies everything a young girl should aspire to be. She is intelligent, brave, caring, unafraid to stand up for herself or those she loves, hardworking, and resilient. J.K. Rowling did fabulous work in creating her. And yet—she is not the primary hero of the books. One of the main three, but the books are not, at heart, about her and her story, or from her perspective.
The majority of books with female leads fall under the romance category. There is nothing particularly wrong with stories about love—who doesn’t love love? Especially during adolescence—but they often fail to demonstrate the depth and variety of women, girls, and the female experience. Of all of the books I inhaled throughout my young life, one author stands out as creating worlds (well, a world) in which women truly shine: Tamora Pierce.
Ms. Pierce has written many books, most of them set in the world of Tortall, a mythical country similar to medieval Europe, but where magic is a part of daily life. All of her series set in Tortall—The Immortals, Protector of the Small, Daughter of the Lioness, Beka Cooper, and the original, The Song of the Lioness—feature female protagonists overcoming incredible adversity and finding themselves. I will focus on The Song of the Lioness Quartet because that series played a huge role in shaping the feminist I am today.
In Tortall, the sons of noblemen become knights, while daughters become “proper” ladies and then find a suitable husband. Alanna of Trebond does not want to become a lady, however; she has little interest in the tasks assigned to noblewomen. So when she and her twin brother Thom turn 11, they devise a scheme. Thom, who is magically gifted, becomes a novice sorcerer while Alanna poses as his male twin and enters the palace as a page.
In the palace, Alanna initially struggles. With the help of her guardian, teachers, and friends (including Crown Prince Jonathan and George Cooper, King of Thieves) she eventually adjusts to palace life and excels at swordsmanship. She still hides as a boy, but a warning from the Mother Goddess to face her fears—her identity, helplessness, and love—leads her to explore herself. Alanna heeds the warning, finding love with both Jon and George and facing a powerful enemy in Jon’s uncle Duke Roger, a charming snake plotting regicide who no one can see through but Alanna. On the night of her ordination into knighthood, she admits her identity and convictions about Roger, defeating him in trial by combat.
After killing Roger she flees to Tortall’s desert and joins a tribe of indigenous Bazhir. She rattles their deeply held notions of femininity, at the same time exploring her own magic that she had always feared. On one visit, Jon proposes marriage. Though she loves him, Alanna refuses, understanding that her nature could never be satisfied by the life of a queen. She then goes on a journey to find the Dominion Jewel, a mythical gem hidden in the Roof of the World that gives immense power to its holder.
On her quest, she meets and loves Liam Ironarm, a fierce warrior; he fears her magic, and Alanna realizes she can never be with someone who cannot accept part of her. She also meets Princess Thayet and her bodyguard Buri, young women fleeing their war-torn home. Initially Alanna believes that Thayet will be too pampered and Buri too angry, but–like most women in Pierce’s universe (and also the real one)–they surprise her with their strength, cunning, and ability to overcome life’s hardships. She also learns from them the value of female friendship, having been surrounded by only men for most of her life.
Upon returning to Tortall, Alanna finds Roger resurrected by her own brother Thom. Roger is bent on destroying the country; Alanna must work with all of her friends and allies to save it on Jon’s coronation day. She rediscovers her soul mate in George, someone who knows and loves her and would not try to restrain her nature.
The Song of the Lioness Quartet taught a very young (I read them for the first time when I was about eight) me what it means to be a woman, and also what it means to be a person. Alanna cannot help but break barriers; she is not out to be a legend, she just wants to be herself and is willing to do whatever it takes for that. Primarily, though, these books taught me that no matter how determined or talented you are, eventually you will need someone to lean on. No person is an island, but a lot of literature depicts people as either completely alone or completely dependent on someone else.
I learned, along with Alanna, that to love and to sometimes be vulnerable does not make you weak. But we also learned that you have to be strong and stand up for what you believe in, even if it makes you enemies–you have to be prepared to fight. Finally, we learned there is nothing inside truly separating